Even after Tampa Bay Lightning forward prospect Tyler Johnson far exceeded expectations during his rookie season in the American Hockey League last year, neither he nor Syracuse Crunch general manager Julien BriseBois paid much attention to the almost fabled notion of the notorious “sophomore slump.”
As it turns out, they would have just been wasting their time.
Johnson, now in his second season in the AHL playing with the Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate in Syracuse, ranks sixth overall in total points with 30 and is second in the league for goals with 18.
It also appears that Johnson is a catalyst for a Crunch team, that entering Friday, held the top position in the 30-team league with an AHL-best 40 points.
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As for that supposed second-year decline, well, even if Johnson himself predicted it wouldn’t happen, he can’t deny that he was ever immune to hearing talk about it prior to the start of the current season.
“As a player it’s always tough to avoid hearing what people are going to say, but for me, I know the bottom line is that I can’t get comfortable,” Johnson said. “I’m always pushing to be better and that’s something that I’ve always had to do throughout my entire career, so I had a feeling that going into this season wouldn’t be any different.”
That is, except, for maybe the fact that the expectations placed upon Johnson and the entire team, for that matter, have been raised.
After all, the majority of players on this season’s version of the Crunch is coming off a Calder Cup championship last season, thus to say that a large target has been placed on the club’s collective back.
Johnson, of course, proved in large part to contribute to that team’s success, finishing the season ranked seventh in league scoring with 68 points before adding another 14 points in as many postseason games.
So, while his rookie season wasn’t by any means bad, perhaps it wasn’t good enough, at least by Johnson’s standards.
“The second you take a moment off, there are 100 guys right behind you who are going to pass you,” he added. “I had a good year last year, but like every player trying to make it to the NHL one day, you always want more.”
Naturally, Johnson did more.
I had a good year last year, but like every player trying to make it to the NHL one day, you always want more. - Tyler Johnson
Following the Norfolk Admirals’ deep playoff run that culminated in championship fashion last season, Johnson worked out with renowned personal trainer Drew Buchkoski – he who is famous for his work with professional athletes in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball – to become stronger, as well as joined his former junior club, the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, to participate in summer workouts.
The result was that Johnson arrived at Crunch training camp in September with 11 pounds of added muscle, which he credits to Buchkoski’s specifically-tailored workout programs that focused heavily on bulking up in the weight room.
“I felt great, which can really boost your confidence going into camp,” Johnson said. “Just knowing that you’re going there a lot stronger and faster than you were a year ago gives you somewhat of a mental edge.”
Adding to his confidence level was performing well on a good hockey team that made a deep run throughout the postseason last spring.
That’s when, as Johnson put it, “the two best teams” squared off in the Calder Cup Final to conclude a stretch of playoff hockey in which the level of competition gradually increased with each passing postseason series.
It was an experience that not only he, but BriseBois as well, believes benefited him heading into this season.
“He proved he could play at a really high level last season, and there’s no doubt he’s very skilled and very competitive,” BriseBois said. “Now as a second-year pro, we’re more concerned at looking at consistency. That will be the key challenge for him, but what helps athletes like him achieve a high level of performance is not only proving he can play in the big situations, which he has done, but also ambition.”
And as BriseBois quickly added, “he has that, too.”